By Cristina Taylor
I have been following the political development of African countries in recent years. One of the countries that attracted my attention is Ethiopia. This is a country that has never been colonized and it has symbolized freedom and independence for Pan-African movements. Ethiopia is one of the oldest nations in the world and the second most populous country in Africa, after Nigeria, with an estimated population of 123 million (WB, 2022). The country is home for over 83 ethnic groups that have diverse cultures, languages or dialects. The Ethiopian people have lived together for centuries and, hence, are interconnected through various social institutions, intermarriage, economic ties, and local administrations.
Despite the many years of such rich social and cultural capital, I was shocked by the ethno political organizations that have dominated the political landscape of the country in its recent history.
Even in comparison to other African countries, most of the Ethiopian politicians locked themselves into ethnic-based ideologies and the successive political regimes, especially in the past three decades, have used contentious ethnic and religious tools to divide and rule the country under ethnic federalism. The country has been divided into eleven national regional states and city administrations by grouping themselves into dominant ethnic group(s) within ill demarcated ethnic and physical boundaries, subsuming smaller nationalities or ethnic groups. The institutionalization of ethnicity and the division of the country into ethnic based states was institutionalized in the 1995 constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, which uniquely provides every nation, nationality or ethnically organized regional states with the unconditional right for self-determination, including the right to secession.
This ethno-political arrangement has never brought equality and unity among its diverse people. Instead, the political landscape has been manipulated by ethnically organized parties backed by armed groups. Accordingly, the country was ruled for 32 years (1991-2018) by the ethnically organized political regime led by the Tigray People Liberation Front(TPLF) / Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). During the past five years (2018-2023), it has been ruled by the former Oromo People Democratic Orgnization, OPDO, or the Oromo led Prosperity Party.
Although the TPLF was removed from power in 2018; it remained the greatest challenge to the Oromo-led Prosperity Party under its Chairman Abiy Ahmed. According to some African Union sources, the political confrontation between the two parties resulted in brutal civil war from 2020 to 2022 and claimed the lives of over 600,000 people and displaced over two million people in the northern part of the country (Afar, Amhara, and Tigray).
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed assumed power through the party system of the defunct TPLF/ EPRDF internal succession procedure representing the then Oromo People Democratic Organization, a coalition of EPRDF. However, Abiy broke with the party’s culture and he turned his back on the TPLF by emerging as a ‘political hacker’. Using populism to gain political legitimacy, he consolidated his personal power and manipulated the political marketplace to primarily stroke his ego, and serve his interest and priorities. He used softer tactics of photogenic leadership and sugar-coated public speeches deceiving the commons. The true political face of Abiy became visible in recent months resembling the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. He brought all the security, military, economic, judiciary and media institutions under his direct command and he has attempted to exercise control over religious institutions including the Ethiopia Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Muslim and the Ethiopian Evangelical Churches. This political game is now driving the country towards a failed state, causing huge religious, ethnic-based conflicts, humanitarian crisis and instability in the country, that will have a spillover effect on the Horn of Africa.
A close examination of the country’s political, economic and social conditions under Abiy Ahmed’s regime bespeaks the state’s fragility.
During Abiy’s regime, the country has hosted frequent conflicts across all the ethnically organized regional states. The Southern region was further torn apart into three ethnically organized regional states. Recent studies document the outbreak of ethnically-motivated clashes and conflicts in the regions and zones of Afar, Amaro, Kemisse, Benshangul Gumuz, Bench Sheko (Maji), Gambella, Oromia, Shashemene, Somali, and Tigray. With the rise in ethno-nationalism, Abiy Ahmed continued to consolidate his personal power over every dimension of people’s lives including the religious affairs of citizens as evidenced by the manipulation of the holy synod of the Ethiopia Orthodox Tewahido church. There are no concrete political commitments and measures by his administration to minimize and stop ethnically targeted attacks that have killed or evicted Amhara people notably in Oromia and Benshangul Gumuz regions. Abiy continued to give a lip service to the ethnic clashes that claimed many lives in the country.
Under the political games of Abiy’s regime, the humanitarian crisis has deepened with over 22 million people in need of immediate humanitarian assistance in Afar, Amhara, Oromia, Southern people and Tigray regions. Over five million people have been displaced internally, including one million people of Amhara origin from Oromia state. The government’s response has been half-hearted, as the regime has been preoccupied with the implementation of Gaddafi’s style of luxury projects such as building expensive presidential palaces and developing affluent parks that neither mitigate the humanitarian crisis nor reduce the country’s extreme poverty. These investments have, instead, generated public resentment against Abiy’s administration.
Furthermore, under Abiy, the government has not shown any concerted efforts to counter corruption. Instead, the country has been trapped by uneven economic growth along ethnic lines. Since he came to power, the political market has been dominated by widespread ethno cultural and religious favoritism, which determines access to key government positions, strategically located lands and estates, financial loans, government contracts, tax relief and lucrative jobs. Such behavior contributes to widening inequality and religious favoritism, which fuels grievances among cross sections of communities, reinforcing political tensions and increasing disintegration.
Ethiopia’s economy has shown significant decline ever since Abiy assumed power although the international financial crisis following COVID-19 and the current Russia-Ukraine war might have contributed to slower growth as reflected in high youth unemployment rates, inflationary pressures, and accelerating public debt levels. The country has attracted a very few foreign investment opportunities, and the purchasing power of the national currency has deeply been weakened. This has been worsened by high level of corruption, profiteering, illicit financial transactions such as money laundering and embezzlement.
Various government reports indicate that the Abiy’s regime failed to fulfill the social service needs of the majority of the people. The situation in the education, housing and employment sectors and internet connectivity have become critical. Abiy’s regime has also constantly showed its inability to protect its citizens from ethnically targeted violence caused by armed groups specially in the Oromia National Regional State, where he himself came from.
Abiy’s regime and its records on human rights violations are escalating. UN and other international human right organizations’ reports confirm that the government has committed widespread abuses of human rights and crimes against humanity. Tens of thousands of individuals have been detained notably in Oromia, Amhara and Addis Ababa because of their ethnic background or political affiliation. The detentions of journalists, religious leaders, social media activists has become a norm. The ethno-politicization of the judiciary system, deployment and misuse of the military and special security forces for political party agendas, and the repression of political opponents have become critical as well. The reports of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission further attests that the regime has not respected due legal process when dealing with political prisoners and dissidents.
Although politically dominant, the Abiy regime continues to struggle with armed groups that are operating as a “state within a state” often with impunity. Several armed groups such as the Oromo Liberation Army (Shene) exercise control over extensive geographic areas notably in west Oromia region, where the political constituencies of Abiy originated. The rise of factionalized elites and polarization specially among Amhara, Oromia, and Tigray as well as Gurage, Gambella, Gumuz, Wolaita, Sidama and Somali constitute serious threats to the functioning of federal and regional government structures, and the existence of a strong nation.
All these social, economic and political problems in the country have now created dissatisfaction among the majority of the population, which threatens the security of Abiy Ahmed to stay in power. The Abiy regime has been trying to address such political challenges through building up a dictatorial system characterized by intimidation, fear, human rights violations and arbitrary detention of protestors and dissidents. Nonetheless, the more the ethnic and political polarization continues, the Abiy regime could become more repressive. If unchecked, this would lead to a large scale instability, mass killings, starvation, displacement, detentions and eventually devastating civil war.
To prevent the situation from further destabilization and following the playbook of other countries such as Libya under the Gaddafi regime or Syria under President Bashar Al- Assad; Abiy himself must facilitate a peaceful transition of power. The current National Dialogue Commission can be one of the avenues for a peaceful transition when Abiy’s term ends in about two years. Ethnic-nationals and armed groups as well as rival political parties should learn from their past failures and cultivate a forward looking political attitude necessary to sit together in search of a common ground for lifting the country out of its political quagmire. The public, notably grassroots community-based organizations, should be given free space to
reconcile differences, reduce tensions and nurture societal cohesion by capitalizing on issues that unite them than on matters that divide them as a nation. For this, they have to revisit the ethnic based constitution that has been used as an instrument to divide and rule for the past three decades. All political parties and elites should foster a culture of civil debate and dialogue to ease polarization and heal the political scars. They need to forgo ethnically and religiously charged political games, and abandon the expedient use of toxic and hateful speech to advance their vested interests. They should focus on reconciliation and building the future for the younger generation through drawing a new charter based on principles of mutual respect, equality, diversity, unity, national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Cristina Taylor is a senior political correspondent, Pretoria, South Africa
Editor’s note : views in the article reflect the views of the writer, not the views of borkena.com
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